Author, Book review, Conor O'Callaghan, Doubleday Ireland, Fiction, France, Ireland, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘We Are Not in the World’ by Conor O’Callaghan

Fiction – paperback; Doubleday Ireland; 260 pages; 2020.

We Are Not in the World by Conor O’Callaghan is a haunting, heartbreaking novel about an Irishman trying to come to terms with two major events in his life: the breakdown of a six-year affair with a married woman and the hospitalisation of his beloved young adult daughter who has tried to take her own life.

Two storylines

The narrative is comprised of two threads: the man’s road journey through France as a novice truck driver delivering unspecified goods for a mysterious man named Carl; and the tale of his illicit affair, told in reverse chronological order from break-up to initial meeting.

The first thread is told in the first person; the second in the second person.

It’s set in August 2015, before the Brexit referendum, in which “the whole landscape of continental haulage could change indefinitely and not for any good.” Refugees, fleeing war-torn Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, are on the news, and when Paddy arrives in Calais from Dover, it’s hard to ignore their inpoverished presence, in the “jungle” and on the streets around town.

The road is lined with wire fencing, fingers pushed through, faces pressed against. Behind them, waves of tents and shacks. The fence is staring at us. And we’re trying not to make eye contact, with the fence. A truck with an Irish reg gets pulled out of the contraflow. Live bodies, one by one, are prised from its chassis.

Clandestine daughter

Accompanying him on this journey is his 20-something American-raised daughter, Kitty, who, as it turns out, is making the trip as a “clandestine” — Paddy is not supposed to have passengers on board — and spends most of her time hidden in the sleeping alcove behind the driver’s seat. Paddy deliberately times their rest stops and overnight stays at unsociable hours to avoid other truck drivers, including the aforementioned Carl, making the same journey and spotting Kitty.

Their time together, whether in the truck’s cabin or sharing a meal in roadside cafes, is conveyed largely through Roddy-Doyle-esque dialogue:

This, she says staring straight ahead.
This?
These more like.
I’m gonna need a few specifics, darling, please.
There you go again.
These what are a bit what?
Carparks, she says.
Ah.
They’re a bit samey.
She is: bored in her reclined passenger seat, in shades and King of the Road cap, rambling aimlessly. I am: about to go indoors to check that it’s safe for her to join me, working overtime to humour her along, inclined to lose track of days that we’ve been here.
They are, I suppose.
They are, aren’t they?
They are.
It’s not just me, she says.
Not just you, love.
Same nothing spaces, she says. Same caffs, same staff, same drab grub. Same sun even, same dome of unblemished friggin azure over our heads.

As the journey unfolds, we learn more about Paddy’s tormented past, his childhood with his beloved mother, also called Kitty, and the strained relationship with his younger brother, Art, who is the “golden child” and executor of their mother’s will in which he is the major beneficiary.

Art also has a very close relationship with his niece, who is also his godchild, and it’s hard not to see that perhaps he has been more of a father figure to her than her own father and this is why this particular road trip, spending time together, is so important to Paddy: he needs to repair their fractured relationship.

We also learn the details of Paddy’s affair, the strange time he spent living in a snow-bound caravan in his lover’s back garden, and the forbidden trysts in stairwells, public toilets and other daring locations.

There’s an achingly sad side trip to Camargue to try to locate a house where Paddy’s mother stayed as a young girl, and another confronting scene in which Paddy is expected to partake in what appears to be a “gang bang” in a wood involving lots of other truck drivers. (He declines.)

An opaque but unforgettable story

Much of the story is opaque and occasionally confusing. Sometimes it’s difficult to know whether references to Kitty are to Kitty the daughter or Kitty the mother. I suspect this is deliberate.

And just like O’Callaghan’s wonderful debut novel, Nothing on Earth, which I read a few years ago, the story is infused with a strange, almost elusive, sense of foreboding. It feels both sinister and enigmatic at the same time.

It’s the kind of novel that is hard work, for you have to piece together bits of information in your own head and come to your own conclusions about what is really going on, but it is entirely worth the effort. (We never find out what Paddy is transporting, for instance, and why Carl encourages him to rig the tachometer readings because he appears to otherwise observe all the haulier rules about driving limits and rest times.)

The ending, when it comes, is like a sucker punch to the stomach. I’ve been thinking about it ever since I finished this book a few days ago. Combined with the unsettling nature of the story, the beautiful language and the difficult subjects tackled, including familial and forbidden relationships, We Are Not in the World is a truly indelible read.

If you like this, you might also like:

‘Travelling in a Strange Land’ by David Park: The story of a photographer from Northern Ireland driving across a snowbound England to rescue his ill son stranded in his student lodgings.

2017 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year, Author, Black Swan, Book review, Conor O'Callaghan, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Literary prizes, Publisher, Setting

‘Nothing on Earth’ by Conor O’Callaghan

Nothing on earth

Fiction – paperback; Black Swan Ireland; 192 pages; 2017.

Irish writer Conor O’Callaghan has taken the concept of a “ghost estate” — an unfinished housing development abandoned in the wake of the collapse of the Irish economy — and turned it into a modern horror story. His debut novel Nothing on Earth will have you checking the locks, making sure all your windows are closed and on tenterhooks for every strange noise you might happen to hear.

Yet this book, which has been shortlisted for the 2017 Kerry Group Novel of the Year Award, isn’t about ghouls or vampires or anything we might normally associate with the horror genre. It’s suspenseful simply because the plot is dotted with unexplained events, which play on your imagination, and O’Callaghan’s lyrical writing style, infused with a haunting, foreboding quality, ratchets up the tension.

Hot August nights

The story is narrated by someone looking back on a series of strange events that happened during the  “hottest August in living memory”. It begins with the sudden arrival of a 12-year-old “skin-and-bone” girl on the doorstep of his home:

She looked like one who had neither eaten proper food nor inhaled fresh air for years. Her teeth were yellow, her nails uncut and filthy. Her skin was sunburned, except for those white lines that had been covered by straps. It was also marked in places, her skin was: scratches, creases, streaks of dirt, and words.

The girl, who has a stilted, foreign accent, isn’t a complete stranger.  She had come to public attention when her mother went missing a few months earlier. They had been renting a house on a nearby ghost estate. Now the girl, who calls herself Helen, says her papa is missing too — “One minute he is behind you. And next time he was gone” — and it soon emerges her aunt, who had lived with them, is nowhere to be found either.

What has happened to the three adults? And where did the security guard who lived on site in a caravan disappear to? What does the landlord know? Who are the mysterious neighbours Helen talks about? Can the girl be trusted? Is she telling the truth?

Strange events

The story spools back to the arrival of Helen’s family on the ghost estate and charts how events unfolded over the summer. What begins as a semi-idyllic existence — heady summer days, sunbathing in the garden, drinking wine and having a laugh — morphs into something more sinister as the nights give way to strange knocking on the front door and mysterious messages written in the dust on the windows.

The enigmatic nature of the story is its greatest strength. You’re never certain if something terrible has happened to Helen’s mother — was she murdered, for instance, or did she simply escape to a better life? Why isn’t her husband, Paul, upset, or is he just putting on a brave face for the sake of his young daughter? And has Helen’s auntie come to harm, or did she do a runner with the security guard who may, or may not, have been her lover?

This is the kind of novel that holds more questions than answers. You are never quite sure who to believe. And you’re not even sure that the events being described even happened.

It’s difficult to explain how O’Callaghan achieves this without giving away plot spoilers, but let’s just say it all adds up to a haunting and troubling and deeply unsettling read. There’s an undercurrent of menace running throughout the storyline, which gives it a necessary tension. And it’s hugely compelling; I wanted to eat it up in one long hungry sitting but had to ration it out because, you know, a little thing like going to work got in the way. I’d recommended clearing your schedule: once you begin Nothing on Earth you’ll want to read it all in one greedy gulp. Just remember to lock the doors.

This is my 2nd book for the 2017 Kerry Group Novel of the Year Award

If you liked this, you might also like:

Broken Harbour by Tana French: A crime novel set on a ghost estate that brims with menace and unease.